I have vivid memories of being in high school and parroting the Cantonese version of Honor to Us All. My anime club officers and I did our best to mimic the language that was foreign to all of us and we made plenty of of mistakes in our pronunciation but we were earnest students and it wasn’t long before we had the whole thing down. But there was one big problem: none of us were Chinese. Most of my anime clubbers were white, a few of us (me included) were black (albeit very culturally abandoned African-American youths) and a few of my anime clubbers were of Asian decent but were Vietnamese or Korean. The long and short of it is: none of us were Chinese and this was a brief moment of cultural appropriation. Come to think of it, I as an African-American human person running Japanese culture clubs for over 10 years is another grand moment of cultural appropriation.
We’ve talked about cultural appropriation a lot but I wanted to talk about a very special kind of cultural appropriation: the Disney variety.
Disney has a long history of picking, choosing and sanitizing the history of many different cultures. Moana features the culture and language of Polynesia. Pocahontas is the very whitewashed version of the story of the real life heroine and Native American. Lilo and Stitch features a mostly native Hawaiian cast and Mulan borrows from many Asian cultures and practices. The main feature of that which makes it appropriative is that Disney is still a mostly white-led company. And even though Moana featured many people of color as voice talent and as researchers, the leads of Disney are still wealthy white men that then get to profit on this somewhat indigenous story.
This is especially troubling for me because as the little culturally abandoned person I am I find myself more drawn to narratives that are not my own. I fell for stories like Mulan and Moana because they were so unlike my own. I did my best to commit the songs to memory and tease apart the language that was so unlike my own. I sold my soul to Japan years ago, so such a desire to flee my own narrative makes it easier to cope with the narrative that was meant to be written for me. But what is the issue with culture and Disney?
Let’s be honest: Disney is a company. They have items to sell. Parks to market and all sorts of other things to put in front of the eyes of children and their parents. This means that Disney has to sanitize parts of history. Pocahontas is a stellar example of: literally none of it happened that way. The Disney way of telling the story puts all the blame on one greedy white man and tries to Devil’s Advocate the whole racism thing. Which is…let’s just pause for a minute to think of how troubling that is. But in their attempt to make this story more palatable for children, they ruined a perfectly good narrative. The real story of the native peoples and their interactions with colonists is far from safe for children but is a harrowing tale of survival and the pain of cultures being forgotten and rewritten due to technological superiority. Princess and the Frog has a very similar problem with race considering its black protagonist and Jazz Age setting. Tiana is so self-actualized she’s hardly a character and Lottie and her family are rather accommodating considering that they still essentially own Tiana’s mother. Because remember kids, the reason she couldn’t own the restaurant was because the bankers were worried about a woman running a business all by herself. No other factors. Nothing else. Nothing at all. What systemic racism? No, eat more French donuts.
Disney tries to fix this issue by ignoring colonialism entirely with Lilo and Stitch and Moana. But the same main issues remain: Disney is not doing anything to benefit the communities it is taking inspiration from and just because there are occasionally people of color behind the screen does not mean it is actual representation. This is particularly interesting with how Disney uses language for music. Some of my favorite Disney songs are not in a language I grew up with. Honor to Us All centers around a very old and distinctly Asian view of marriage and what it means to be a good daughter (though as a Southern debutante, I can admit those feelings aren’t too far off the mark for someone in my position). My favorite parts of Moana feature a language whose words are very unfamiliar but with more familiar sentiments. Heck, my favorite part of Pocahontas is the opening song sung in the native language of the Powhatan tribe.
I want to talk about merchandising for a moment since it is also a key part of this whole cultural appropriation thing. And no, we’re not going to talk about the little brown-face/brown-body Maui costume that Disney decided was a good idea last year. But the buying and selling of cultural artifacts to help bolster support for a movie is dubious at best. I remember being a kid and McDonald’s selling a copy of Pocahontas’ necklace from the movie but the idea behind such a necklace does hold some significance for the Powhatan tribe.
Moana had similar issues with native pieces and accessories suddenly becoming en vogue again. All the shell jewelry and tribal prints.
But wait, Amanda, someone shouts from the edges of the comment section: This isn’t the only time Disney has messed around with other cultures. What about Hunchback of Notre Dame or literally most other Disney movies. Here’s the problem with that: cultural appropriation is a neutral term but it’s mostly a problem with a colonizing culture appropriates a colonized culture. So not a problem for Disney to go French for a while but it is a problem for them to go pan-Arab for Aladdin. (We’ll talk about pan-culturalism soon because I have thoughts!)
And what’s interesting is how wrong this all feels now in hindsight. Cultural appropriation is made painful by the fact that really only the company (Disney, in this case) benefit from taking over or taking aspects of a culture and no one (short of the occasional actor or cultural specialist) really benefit from them making a powerhouse movie like Moana or Coco. And while the cultural impact is huge like with Coco (that cannot and will not be denied) who benefits when someone buys an mp3 of the soundtrack or gets a hoodie or t-shirt from the movie. What about when someone goes running around with a sugar skull t-shirt without knowing the story or meaning behind them? Insidious, isn’t it?
Actually an interesting work around to this came about from a conversation about porgs with Carlos. For those of you who have been living in a cave, porgs are a new and adorable Star Wars. Porgs are adorable and the reasoning behind them is very practical. They are little digital costumes for the local puffins that could not be removed out of every shot in the movie The Last Jedi. Porgs are adorable and the reason is interesting but the fact that Disney now is profiting so much out of a necessity is strange. Carlos mentioned ratherly quickly “It’d be cool if they just gave some of the toy sales to help the real puffins out.” and that was very valid. What if some of the money from Coco or Moana went to cultural centers or to organizations that support these at times at-risk communities or populations. Is this just another form of tokenism: sure, probably. But it’s tokenism that could prove more valuable than letting an entire generation grow up with a sanitized narrative and none of the context behind what is so compelling about the narratives told by other cultures.
Next time, we’ll talk about pan-culturalism!